Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Christopher Jencks explores the common-sense conviction that poverty rates are not declining. The poverty rate has stayed largely static since 1969, but Jencks shows how that statistic is unreliable. Today, there are many more cohabiting couples who both work and can each be counted as poor. There are also many more “non-cash” benefits like food stamps, which do not count towards income measured by the poverty line. Larger tax credits for the working poor also are invisible in poverty statistics because poverty is measured on a pre-tax basis. The result, Jencks writes, is that poverty has actually fallen much more precipitously than is usually thought. “Both liberals and conservatives tend to resist the idea that poverty has fallen dramatically since 1964, although for different reasons. Conservatives’ resistance is easy to understand. They have argued since the 1960s that the federal government’s antipoverty programs were ineffective, counterproductive, or both. Since the 1970s they have cited the stability of the post-1969 poverty rate to support those judgments. To them, the suggestion that poverty has fallen sounds like a suggestion that the War on Poverty succeeded. Liberals hear the claim that poverty has fallen quite differently, although they do not like it any better than conservatives do. Anyone, liberal or conservative, who wants the government to solve a problem soon discovers that it is easier to rally support for such an agenda by saying that the problem in question is getting worse than by saying that although the problem is diminishing, more still needs to be done. The equation of ‘bad’ with ‘worse’ is so tight in American political discourse that when I tell my friends or my students that ‘there is still a lot of poverty, but less than there used to be,’ they have trouble remembering both halves of the sentence. Some remember that there is still a lot of poverty. Others remember that there is less than there used to be. Few remember both.”
Randall Kennedy in The Boston Review writes about the contested history of protest politics in the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on the ambiguous legacies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. “In assessing Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton it is important to keep in mind that they tried to act against the racial injustice that has befouled America. That alone entitles them to some respect. It is important to acknowledge, too, the profound obstacles they encountered within and outside black communities. At this moment when civil liberties are threatened by new, disturbingly powerful surveillance technologies, we must remember that the self-destructive paranoia and divisiveness that menaced black power leaders stemmed in large part from the devious and illicit machinations of Hoover and other enforcers of law and order. It is also important to acknowledge that Carmichael was only twenty-five when he shouted ‘black power!’ and that Newton was only twenty-four when, with Seale, he founded the Panthers. It should come as no surprise that young people sometimes display bad judgment in confronting daunting conditions. Without a sympathetic appreciation of peoples’ problems, internal and external, there is no realistic way to take stock of their accomplishments and defeats. But this does not lessen the responsibility of scholars to be exacting, especially when they self-consciously pursue their studies in order to advance social change, as the progressive revisionists of black power do. The art of social transformation is demanding. Those who portray the past for instruction and inspiration must not shrink before its imperatives, lest today’s activists learn the wrong lessons.”
Carmen Maria Machado wonders what college students would do if they knew how many of their professors were adjuncts and just what that means: “We like to rhapsodize about the influential teacher who changes lives and hearts, and makes students stand on their desks in academic ecstasy. But this doesn’t translate in the contemporary world of higher education. There is a complicated culture of silence that surrounds adjuncting. Schools have no incentive to draw attention to how many adjuncts most institutions now rely on, and as for the adjuncts themselves, addressing the subject raises awkward questions, and might even put their jobs at risk: in her essay ‘The Teaching Class,‘ Rachel Riederer recounts how merely explaining how adjuncting worked to a group of students outside of class threw one adjunct’s job into jeopardy. There also can be an element of shame, or reservations about discussing financial matters, or a reluctance to complain. Harvey tells me he didn’t think of it as a secret; it just never occurred to him to bring it up. ‘I would’ve told anyone who’d asked’ he said. But then the students often don’t know to ask. If more of them learned how many of their classes are taught by poorly paid, unsupported teachers, even as their tuition rises, how would they react? Would they question the value of their education? Call for reform? Or would they do what I suspect I would have done if I’d known Harvey, the most valuable teacher in my undergraduate career, was an adjunct: burned with embarrassment, and never reached out to him after the semester closed, because I’d already received too much?”
Jon Nixon considers Hannah Arendt’s thinking and how it connects to the political role of education. “It is the task of education–and therefore of the university–to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible. But the university can fulfil [sic] that task only if the space it provides remains uncluttered by what Arendt saw as barriers to thought. There were–and are–two such barriers. The first is the assumption that the outcomes of thinking can be pre-specified–that we can think things through to a predetermined end or goal. Against this assumption, Arendt insisted–in her 1967 essay on ‘Truth and Politics’–that ‘our thinking is truly discursive, running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views’. Thinking is heuristic and explorative, unpredictable in its outcomes, uncertain and indeterminate. It falls outside the frame of any pedagogical approach or assessment regime premised on the notion of pre-specifiable goals, targets and outcomes. The second barrier relates to notions of academic categorisation. Arendt understood the importance of disciplinary and methodological boundaries, but was aware that these could all too easily become barriers. In her own life and work she insisted on the need to think outside–and between–the traditional academic categories: ‘thinking without bannisters’, as she called it. During an interview televised in 1964, she rounded on her interviewer who referred to her as a philosopher: ‘I have said goodbye to philosophy once and for all. As you know, I studied philosophy, but that does not mean that I stayed with it.’ Having distanced herself from that subject, she never settled into an established discipline but constantly crossed and re-crossed the boundaries between historical analysis, philosophical reflection and political theory. As she put it in her lectures on Kant’s political philosophy, what matters is ‘[t]o think with the enlarged mentality–that means you train your mind to go visiting’. The public sphere was, for Arendt, the outward expression of that ‘enlarged mentality’–so, to ‘go visiting’ was to journey out into that sphere. She saw education as providing a necessary transitional zone between the private and the public: a semi-public space within which we can test our opinions, interpretations and judgments and be held to provisional account for them. As Jerome Kohn–a distinguished scholar and editor of Arendt’s work and one of her former students–recalls: ‘In her seminar, every participant was a “citizen” called upon to give his or her opinion, to insert him or herself into that miniature polis in order to make it, as she said, “a little better.”‘ This ‘insertion’ of the self into the polis constitutes a radically new beginning–a ‘natality’ in Arendt’s terms–by which we realise our potential as persons and as citizens.”
Alexander Clapp sketches how Syriza, the leftist party recently elected to power in Greece, has reached into the academy for its ministers and its guiding principles and how it’s attempting to put theory into practice, if a little haphazardly: “Syriza hasn’t tried to hide its academic inclinations. Down the street from the party’s crumbling headquarters in Psiri, a leftist redoubt in Athens, is the Nicos Poulantzas Institute. This is Syriza’s think tank, where about two hundred party intellectuals, mostly economists, have been polishing their theories since 1997. Leftists from more than twenty similar organisations throughout Europe–the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany, Espaces Marx in France–show up every week to give talks. An office press, Nissos, publishes several volumes of party scholarship every year. Analyses produced by the institute’s members–‘The Political Economy of Public Debt’ by Nikos Theocharakis; ‘Development, Productive Reconstruction, Memoranda and Debt in Greece, a Country of 1.5 Million Unemployed People’ by Nadia Valavani, the current alternative finance minister–appear in Avgi, on Kokkino, the party radio station, and Left.gr, its blog. ‘Syriza politicians let us operate the institute autonomously,’ Georgios Daremas, one of its trustees, told me. ‘We push out ideas; they grab onto things here and there.'” The list includes friends of the Hannah Arendt Center, including Rania Antonopoulos, Associate Professor of Economics at Bard and Senior Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute, who was elected to the Greek Parliament as a Syriza Party member in January.
Dane Erickson compares the recent street movements in Sub-Saharan Africa to the Arab Spring but notes that its the maintenance of democracy, rather than the end of an unpopular autocratic regime, that’s at stake: “Looking over the horizon, attempts by African leaders to stay beyond constitutionally mandated limits may serve as flashpoints for increasingly disillusioned young and middle-class people. Many African nations created two-term limits in the early 1990s, but Angola, Chad, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Togo, and Zimbabwe have since done away with those limits. Some observers believe that Burundi, Rwanda, Benin, and the Republic of Congo may also attempt to amend their constitutions during the next two years. Almost 30 years ago, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said ‘the problem of Africa…is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.’ Many have encouraged the practice of peaceful succession of power, most notably Mo Ibrahim. In the next couple years, a number of African leaders will have important decisions to make along these lines. In some cases, the African Street may help make those decisions for them.”
Jim Sleeper in the Washington Monthly waxes pessimistic and tragic about the recent re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In doing so, he refers to Arendt Center Director Roger Berkowitz’s account of Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the decreasing potency of war in modern politics. “Berkowitz’s must-read essay argues that the nature of war itself has changed enough that massive militaries are useless and that war itself is unwinnable by any ‘side.’ His essay opens with Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation that since sovereign states have no ‘last resort’ except war, then ‘if war no longer serves that purpose, that fact alone proves that we must have a new concept of the state.’ What Netanyahu’s victory probably does prove is that many Israelis, for compelling, understandable, but tragic reasons–and their American cheerleaders, for reasons that are far less compelling or excusable–aren’t ready to internalize this new truth about war and make new history by supporting a viable federation with Palestinians along the lines Nusseibeh sketches. Paroxysms can’t be reasoned with. And Berkowitz explains why, when they’re militarized, paroxysms can’t win. We have to hope that they’ll burn themselves out before they draw everything else down with them and that some new combination of circumstance and persuasion will deter them.”
Jessica Benko takes a peek inside Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison: “To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere–these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.”
The website Muckrock has posted an FBI memorandum obtained through Freedom of Information Request on Hannah Arendt. In it, Arendt is described as “a small, rotund, stoop shouldered woman with a crew-like haircut, masculine voice and a marvelous mind.” And she is considered dangerous. “Mr. [redacted] advised he felt HANNAH ARENDT was very dangerous to the best interests of this country in view of the fact she is a professor who travels around the United States instructing at numerous colleges as a visiting professor. He stated his daughter changed her thinking completely after taking courses from HANNAH ARENDT at the University of California at Berkeley, California, in 1955, and feels that it was her influence which had influenced his daughter to go to Europe to study under Professor PAUL RICOERUR. Mr. [redacted] advised that from the information he had been able to gather, he could not say that HANNAH ARENDT was a Communist, but stated she was advocating a totalitarian philosophy in her political courses.”
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Is Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty and Promoting Freedom in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and Rift Valley Institute.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses how the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero uses Arendt to argue for a narratable self in defense of individual uniqueness in the Quote of the Week. American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Shmuel Lederman, a visiting scholar with the Hannah Arendt Center, discusses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the recent Israeli elections. HAC student fellow Marisol Dothard recounts Eyal Press’s keynote speech, which was the first installment in our “Courage to Be” dinner/lecture series. And we appreciate Arendt’s collection of Adolf von Harnack’s multi-volume work, “History of Dogma,” in our Library feature.